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Panel talks about closing “opportunity gap”

Finding new ways to develop science and technology skills will keep young adults out of poverty and strengthen Charlotte’s appeal to employers, speakers at a Microsoft YouthSpark program said Tuesday.

Almost 200 people gathered at Johnson C. Smith University to review data on “the opportunity gap” and talk about ways to close it. They talked about ways to reach teens and young adults – disproportionately African American and Hispanic – who lack job skills and end up un- or under-employed.

“In this day and age, a quality education is still the surefire passport to success,” said Byron Garrett, director of Microsoft’s Innovative Schools Program. YouthSpark is a national Microsoft philanthropic effort to increase education and employment opportunities.

Alan Berube of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Skyped in to present a report on the six-county Charlotte metropolitan area. He said Charlotte rates above the national average on college-educated adults, but college graduates are more likely to have moved in than to be natives of the Carolinas.

About 25 percent of the area’s 16- to 24-year-olds are not in school and have no college education, putting them at risk for unemployment, he said.

Margo Scurry, technology instructor for the local Jacob’s Ladder Job Center, said if students don’t move quickly into college, the military or Job Corps after high school graduation, there’s a strong chance that “the streets will claim them.” She said her organization sees far too many young adults with felony convictions, which hobbles their job prospects.

Berube said about half the jobs in the Charlotte region require strong science, technology, engineering or math skills, known as STEM. But less than half of those demand a bachelor’s degree, with jobs in such fields as mechanics, electronics, telecommunications and health care available to people with less than four years of college.

Aisha Davis, a senior at Johnson C. Smith, said she had no particular interest in technology when her mom talked her into signing up for Microsoft’s DigiGirlz program in New Jersey.

“It exposed me to technology and to women in technology,” she told the group. She was intrigued enough to major in computer systems information technology at JCSU. She was accepted into the Microsoft Academy for College Hires, which means she’ll go straight to work as a technical account manager when she graduates in May.

Alicia Robinson, a junior at Garinger High, asked the panel for advice on being ready for college and a career.

Lenny Springs, a senior adviser with the U.S. Department of Education, told her to load up on nothing but STEM courses her senior year.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison disagreed. Take those classes, he said, but don’t forget about liberal and fine arts.

“I will challenge you to have a well-rounded education,” Morrison said. “Find time for the arts. You have to have the opportunity to innovate and create.”

Davis, who volunteers helping younger students learn robotics, urged Robinson to start building a support team: “Find a mentor and be a mentor.”

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